Death in Alexandria, 340 A.D.: Cavafy

Last Friday night at home, working off the buzz I’d inherited from the four beers I’d guzzled during my company’s happy hour (literally a one hour-long affair, spread on the credenza near the hallway), I logged into my twitter to tweet about a dream I had the night before in which I wrote a tidy tome analyzing Paul Celan’s poems using sabermetrics (the results of my book proved that - post VOPR, UZR and adjusted OPS via dream logic - Celan was more than a little overrated, which made me a pariah with both the literati and baseball statisticians). Just before logging out, however, I saw @arachnomaria's link to Cavafy's stunning poem, "Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.," translated by Daniel Mendelsohn. The poem, I guess, can ostensibly be taken as an elegy, except there’s nothing much elegiac about it on the surface. 


In the poem, a youth named Myres has died. He was a Christian in Alexandria during a period when the city, after Constantine’s rule, was undergoing a tidal religious transformation - in the beginning of the fourth century, Alexandria was predominantly pagan; there were laws and injunctions which persecuted Christians for their faith unto death. Then, during and after Constantine, Alexandria increasingly and en masse converted to Christianity, until it was the pagans who became marginalized, culminating in the destruction of the Serapeum led by Theophilus. (I have to note and strongly recommend: Daniel Mendelsohn’s annotations to his Cavafy translation, by the way, serve as excellent guide to Cavafy’s series of poems set in Alexandria of this era.)

In Cavafy’s poem, the “I” is a pagan friend or lover (?) of Myres, and the final stanza is a stunning testament of mourning which summons the personally emotional, metaphysical and religio-political sense of loss, all at once with chilling realism. By the closing lines of the poem, “I” is observing the diligent rituals of Christian funeral rites, listening to the priests talk of Myres’ soul -

And all of a sudden I was seized by a queer
impression. Vaguely, I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger; I sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.—
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.

This poem is bar none the best non-Christian Christian poem ever. The perspective is profoundly pagan, but that stark realization of “I,” that it may be the Christian faith which will ultimately estrange “I” from the memory of Myres… There’s a deliberate and brilliant blurring of boundaries between the pagan and the Christian - the perspective of the poem repudiates Christianity, but the ultimate confession does not deny Christianity’s darkly real hold on the “I” of the poem, over the memory of Myres, and finally ends up fundamentally coloring his entire relationship with Myres, threatening his lasting remembrance of him.


The sense of mourning, as expressed by Cavafy, is multivalent. In historical context, this voice seems all the more sad and desperate, backed up against the wall. This diary entry from Roland Barthes’ The Mourning Diary flashes across my mind for some reason now (tr. Richard Howard) -

December 9

Mourning: indisposition, a situation with no possible blackmail.

It’s just a hopeless fight to preserve the memory of the lost, which, in the end, has to do with our stupid desire to bring back those whom we’ve lost with futile rites and gestures: a syncretic and universalist foolishness, equally Christian and pagan at once. Cavafy expresses this very foolishness of our rituals and desires in another poem called “Cleitus’s Illness” set in Alexandria of the same era. In this poem, an old housemaid tries to bring Cleitus, a privileged Christian youth, back from the verge of death and to health by chanting litanies to a pagan idol she once worshiped as a girl, in a Christian home of her master, no less. Here’s how the poem ends -

She secretly takes some cakes, and wine, and honey.
She brings them before the idol. She chants as many
litanies as she recalls: the bits from either end, the middles. The foolish
doesn’t realize that it matters little to the black demon
whether a Christian is or isn’t cured.


Yet, it is because of this foolish endeavor that the maidservant has our sympathies, that she moves us. All the more moving because no matter the futility of her vigilance, there is still a sense of life in her petition. Cavafy. Just one day before the entry on mourning which I quoted above, Barthes made another entry on mourning -

(Images, top to bottom: by Alexey Titarenko, Roland Barthes’ handwriting from a “Mourning Diary” entry, a detail from Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuonni)

19 April 2012 ·

Morning run. Poetry. Romanticism.

Pre-dawn morning runs in the Central Park, something about trotting to a run when it’s still cold and dark so I walk over a few blocks to the Jackie O Reservoir, which is about 1.5 miles in circumference, the lamps in neat intervals interspersed along its dark perimeter, a ring of halogen stones, each throwing an etiolated length of light on the water, the scalloped head of the Chrysler still lit in the distance. When the day breaks, I notice two ducks motionless (sleeping?) on the water, and at the moment, the sight is strange and perfect at the same time… which reminds me of another strange and perfect sight I saw during a recent walk near Union Square -

More than a bit cheesy if the person hung it as a bohemian “performance,” which is likely the case. Nevertheless, the sight did make me feel as though I were walking past a Puccini set. Lifted my spirits. So out of place, that it was perfect. A few months ago, I watched a film by Lee Chang-dong called Poetry -

There’s a scene in the film in which these amateur poets in some rural region of Korea gather together for dinner and drinks after their hobbyist poetry club meeting. And a middle-aged guy, looking not too many rungs more polished than a farmhand, offers to sing a song unbidden, buoyed by alcohol and good feeling. I frankly anticipated the guy to croak out some sappy Korean song from the 60s, but my expectations were totally subverted when he began singing, a capella, in a not-too-unpleasant baritone, “Der Lindenbaum” from Schubert’s Winterreise.

The unexpected Schubert shook me. When I was a kid in Korea, I used to visit my mother’s family in Jeonju. I grew up in Seoul but most of the relatives on my mother’s side were farmers or raised livestock in the country. One of my uncles - the husband of my mom’s older sister - was a farmer who moonlighted as a high school teacher (or vice versa, I don’t remember). According to my memory, he had a perpetually bronzed skin and only wore thin white cotton t-shirts, even during winter.

I must have been 6 or 7 years old, but I vividly remember looking through the books on the shelf. Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian was there. The shelf was stuffed with books by continental European writers and philosophers from the 19th century, mostly German. Goethe, of course. Novalis. Kant. von Kleist. E.T.A. Hoffmann. I flipped through the pages back then, but the words swam in front of my eyes, unmoored from meaning. His children, my older cousins, who were in junior high/high schools, read The Sorrows of Young Werther or memorized Schiller verses. These names seemed bigger than life to me back then, and worthy of devotion; I don’t think I’ve ever shaken off the kind of childhood romance I had about decoding the words in those books.

Romanticism. Schubert and Byron-worshipping rural folk in Poetry. My farmer/teacher uncle and his impassable love for the 19th-century German literature and thought. Perhaps this should not be so jarring for our sensibilities - that the keepers of Romanticism are those who remain outside of the mainstream academia or literary community. They are the common people, perhaps plowing through life in Korea or Sri Lanka or Ethiopia (or even, in an apartment next door) who read the Romantic masters not with irony or deflection, historicizing the texts ad nauseum… but with true belief and feeling.

A while back, I wrote about Andras Schiff’s recording of Bach’s Six Partitas, and compared his account of late Bach with late Brahms. While reading the New Yorker's profile of Helene Grimaud, I was so pleased with what she said about late Bach and Romanticism -

If you talk to me, you can call a lot of things Romantic. You can call Bach’s Sixth Partita as Romantic as any Wagner opera. Romanticism is, for me, much more than a period in culture.

No lovelier way to encapsulate what I mean to say. In a certain poem or a song sometimes, that lush view opening up during a silence following a plosive? Romanticism.

By the way, noticed during a late morning walk over to my office on Monday that the kids are skating on ice already -

(Images by Caspar David Friedrich and Walmor Corrêa are buried in here somewhere, among throwaway shots I took with my BlackBerry)

10 November 2011 ·

Gordon Matta-Clark

Would love to check out the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibt at David Zwirner Gallery, which Peter Schjeldahl wrote about in last week’s The New Yorker.


I don’t know much about Gordon Matta-Clark’s biography, except that he died in 1978, from pancreatic cancer - he was only 35 years old. He practiced what some refer to as “Anarchitecture” - he and a group of “anarchitects” would take various condemned buildings, structures and houses in NYC/NJ areas and basically punch holes and slice gaping bisecting lines and geometric shapes through them. See below, a b&w photo of “Splitting” -


and from the interior -


I first saw some of these images in the early 90s, when I was really way too young and easily impressionable, and Gordon Matta-Clark, along with Ban Jas Ader, Joseph Beuys, Martin Kippenberger, represented somewhat of a personal, idiosyncratic pantheon for me when it came to art. I thought about their work just as much as I thought about Babel or Sebald or Akhmatova… it’s quite possible that I was never as much in love with art as I had been back then. Actually, it’s quite true -



When people talk about Matta-Clark’s work, they tend to use terms like “guerilla,” “anarchy,” you know… cutting edge, avant-garde… but what drew me to Matta-Clark is the insistence on stripping things down to the elemental forms, which I found classical in impulse, almost Platonically striving.



I wrote about the nature vs. artifice contrast in the crystal image in Sebald’s work, and so it is, too, here: how ironic is it that Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture was just as much about the effects and filtration of light and other natural elements as it was about demolishing/re-making manbuilt structures and ruins -


Poetry. Cavafy expresses it better with “Ionic” -

That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

(tr. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

20 January 2011 ·

About Me

books. baseball. LPs. 45s. 78s. City. alcohol. ghosts.